blip

There is an assumption I can probably make here with a reasonable amount of certainty. If you’re reading this, there might be a pretty low level of probability that you fit a particular general kind of profile. If you bother to take the time to read something like this, I figure you are not going to fit much of what I am about to describe and talk about. On the other hand, it’s a safe bet that you encounter a lot of it in your life. If not, you are definitely in circumstances that are not the usual norm in America circa 2011.

I’ve been reading “Amusing Ourselves To Death”, a book written by Neil Postman back in 1985. It’s interesting to think about the context there, considering the time when it was written. The theme of the book is about how television has changed public attention, thinking, and discourse. The funny thing is that what he was talking about, then, about a quarter century ago, obviously predated some substantial changes. What he was talking about has only become much worse.

Postman’s view of things was at a time when cable television already existed, but it wasn’t considered as some sort of normal standard for every home to have at least dozens, even hundreds, of available channels of television, and he wasn’t looking at an era with internet connections to the web, Twitter twittering of statements of a few dozen characters, people constantly fiddling with the mobile phones and text messages, and generally an array of constant and competing noise sources.

I don’t really want to try to summarize it all here, you should read the book yourself, but the general theme is worth a quick look. Postman talks about how different forms of communication over human history have affected what we communicate and how. It might sound redundant or stupidly obvious, what I’ve just said, to say that how we communicate affects how we communicate. I don’t mean that in the sense of simply pointing out a difference in means of communication. Rather, it means, that the means, the medium, of communication affects how we communicate in terms of what we actually communicate via a medium. Postman spends a substantial amount of space explaining all that, and I suspect that trying to distill all of that down to just a short paragraph would end up being a little stupid. There’s a large portion of the major point of the whole book, in fact, which I’ll talk about more.

For now, though, I’ll point to something he spent some time on, talking about the famous quote from Marshall McLuhan, “the medium is the message”. Postman said that perhaps McLuhan’s point might have been better understood (let’s face it, that phrase can be a little puzzling, just a bit ambiguous) if, instead, he had phrased it as “the medium is a metaphor”. In other words, the medium and it’s characteristics tell you something about the way people think as they use that medium, as a result of using that medium. The medium being used changes how people think because of how they adapt to it. It changes how people form the communications they want to get across to other people and it changes the kind of perception and understanding people get at the receiving end.

In other words, how somebody puts together the message, what they can put into it, and what people get from it, is different comparing a television program to a book. It’s different between a 500 page book and a newspaper article. It’s different between a newspaper article and a couple of sentences on Twitter.

Right now, and this is something I see fairly often, you can find situations like people responding to written communications in email, or something written on the web, a piece like this, a note on a web forum, and if something goes longer than a few short sentences, maybe a couple of paragraphs, like “whoa, man, don’t be so long winded!”.

People grow accustomed to cable television news programming where time is filled by putting people alongside each other in a studio “panel”, or, more often, in separate studios staring into their own cameras, and put together on the screen like a video collage, and barking at each other. So often, then, it seems, watching that kind of circus, as if anybody involved feels pressure to shout all the time, and not say anything that can’t be crammed into a few quick words, maybe a couple of quick sentences at most, lest they risk having their thoughts lost by being interrupted by somebody shouting at the same time as they’re trying to speak. The results are obvious. You get “sound bites”. Anything more detailed and complex than what you can cram into a quick statement, before somebody interrupts, is rarely articulated in any television news programming. Even when you’re watching something where that kind of circus isn’t in action, and people can actually speak seriously without interruptions, there isn’t much of a time window for anything other than ridiculously simplistic quick comments. This is pretty inexplicable with 24 hour a day networks supposedly devoted to news.

Something I find really grotesque is to see these sorts of farces with separate side by side video panes where some character sits there staring into the camera and babbling loudly right over the top of another guest speaking, and then sits there with a sort of smug smile on their face as if they think, because they’re making it virtually impossible for that person to express a complete thought or statement (or even just answer a question asked by the loudmouth), “I’m winning!”.

Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge. — Isaac Asimov

This speaks truth, especially in a time when a lot of people look at news and information about the world as something to be consumed in little processed bite sized snacks.

You can take a look at C-Span (more than one channel of that) and get extended views of assorted government proceedings and various programs where people do actually speak, at length, without commercial interruptions, usually in situations where people are actually able to speak without some obnoxious loud goon interrupting every five seconds.

That can be a very good thing. You can actually experience people speaking and expressing complete thoughts, not snipped and sliced and pieced together in rapid fire sound bites. On the other hand, you can also get another kind of insight from this kind of coverage. Watching C-Span, as they simply point cameras and microphones at speakers and simply let things proceed as they are, can also give you experiences of people talking and talking and talking and saying almost nothing of any use. You can invest a little time in this and get a much better idea of what some people are all about, good and bad. You can find people speaking and communicating serious thoughts and information and ideas and explaining the topic at hand, you can also get a good handle on who is actually a nonstop bullshit nozzle.

How many people sit through this? How many people just want to flip channels with the remote, get some bursts of sound bite edits and people barking at each other, and then consider themselves satisfied that they’re informed and up to date on the latest?

Even when some people take this approach and devote time and attention to full length unedited speeches and discussions via C-Span, much of it is less than stellar and enlightening and encouraging. You can get marathon exposure to just how dysfunctional some things are.

A few days ago I sat and watched a House of Representatives committee hearing devoted to the subject of “job creation and deficit reduction” considering the issue of whether or not to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. It was tedious and exasperating. (Note: The televised hearing I watched was the “Panel 2” session.)

There could be a lot said just on the general subject of how these things work, or don’t work, as people do the dysfunctional political dance. But even putting that nonsense aside, this particular hearing was astonishing. To generalize a bit, it tended to be, not any surprise, split up into Team A versus Team B Republicans versus Democrats.

The general contention of part of the assembled bright lights was a recurring theme; that if only those darned environmental green tree hugger liberal extremists got out of the way, oil aplenty from Alaska would be pouring forth and creating “jobs and prosperity”, and this great wealth would work wonders in reducing the national budget deficits and accumulated debt of the U.S. federal government.

The Democratic members of the committee focused on the importance of places like ANWR and other natural reserves being left alone, there being reasons why places like that were protected in the first place. That area of discussion provided one interesting anomaly, a representative of some organization of Republicans for Conservation, which, in American politics today, must surely be a group of outcasts among their political party. Looking at the madness that abounds now, it’s lost on most people that part of the process of setting aside and protecting natural areas of the United States came from President Dwight Eisenhower (the Republican president Republicans forgot as they raised Ronald Reagan to some sort of deity).

Somebody recently wrote that the current state of American politics revolves around “liberals” who have forgotten how to liberate, and “conservatives” who never learned to conserve.

The most important thing about this hearing was what was not there. I came upon the televised hearing as it was already well underway, so I missed a significant portion of this. But I didn’t hear anything about the consumption rates of oil in the U.S., which over recent years has been bouncing around roughly in the range of 18 to 21 million barrels of crude per day. Worldwide consumption runs somewhere over 85 million barrels per day (just to put that in perspective, 85 million barrels per day works out to just about 1000 barrels of oil per second that the world is blowing through). It’s hard to get an exact handle on that depending on whose numbers you look at, especially considering that sometimes you find that people are counting pretty much any kind of hydrocarbon liquids as “crude oil”.

The point is, the short version here is, what can be gotten from drilling for oil in ANWR in either the short term or long term view is not what it’s cracked up to be according to the “drill, drill, drill” crowd. In that House committee hearing I was having trouble making myself stay with it as I listened to extended bullshit, like how this would drive down oil prices (it would hardly make a difference), or the usual complete fictional nonsense about it making us “energy independent”.

On the House of Representatives website you can find some of the sales pitch that has apparently been put up by the House Republicans pushing this. You can go and read a report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration yourself from a few years ago and wade through it. When you look at this in the context of the rate the United States is using up the oil available, the potential of oil extraction from ANWR is not nearly as spectacular and wondrous as some of the congressional representatives are making it. It actually starts looking remarkably minimal and short term. In this particular case, we’re considering a project in a remote wilderness preserve, and there’s a fundamental concept to this kind of place. Once you fuck it up, you can’t just put it all back the way it was.

Much of the noise happening on this matter and the thinking about it in some circles reflects attitudes I’ve talked about before. One idea held as an operating principle by some is “nature” as some sort of discrete separate domain. That’s often accompanied by an idea that anything in that domain is only meaningful in terms of the potential to provide raw material for some human enterprise. In that kind of thinking, somebody looks at an area and might think, and argue, “look at it, there’s nothing there”, with a simplistic and horribly foolish basis to that; essentially, they look at photographs, don’t see any buildings and roads, therefore, in their view of things, there is nothing. It’s a really fundamental philosophical problem, and it has real, serious, destructive effects. I would like people to see the video documentary “Oil on Ice” for a little perspective.

Members of Congress are not lacking information on the oil situation. For one example, there’s the GAO report, “CRUDE OIL Uncertainty about Future Oil Supply Makes It Important to Develop a Strategy for Addressing a Peak and Decline in Oil Production“. Among other things, right there in that report on page 8 is a graph of U.S. oil extraction rates. A few minutes of reading about the concept of Hubbert’s curve puts that in immediate clear perspective. Around the middle of the last decade Congress got the paper usually referred to as “the Hirsch report”, full title “PEAKING OF WORLD OIL PRODUCTION: IMPACTS, MITIGATION, & RISK MANAGEMENT”. These guys have no excuses for not knowing the picture.

I suspect, naturally enough, that some might know what the score is with oil, and their attitude is a consequence. If nothing else, I know for certain that Rep. Roscoe Bartlett knows very well, because I’ve seen him appearing on video about the subject and its importance and urgency. It seems apparent to me that the response of some of the relatively few people in these positions who do clearly know what’s up is to go into full on aggressive mode in anything where we can scrounge any oil available to keep supplies up, maintain status quo.

I’m reminded again of an online comment I read a few months back, that I’m sure I’m repeating, saying “we need to do whatever’s necessary to keep it plentiful and cheap” (regarding oil), and me trying to point out what should be obvious; that was the thought to have about sixty years ago. We’re past that now, and we have been for decades.

It’s impossible for me to not repeat some things about oil and the general energy resources situation whenever I raise the subject, and I keep finding myself writing about this situation, even with lots of other things to talk about, just because it is such an important topic, and I keep looking around and seeing the vast majority of the United States really not getting a grip on where we are in this. Here it is again as I reflect on a display of clueless noise from our elected representatives in government.

Almost all of it generally distills down to a most fundamental concept, the failure of people to look at the resource of petroleum (along with other resources, also) and grasp the whole concept of the word “finite”.

The pompous, formal, self importance so common in the national legislature of the United States is especially appalling when it’s combined with full on delusion. There’s a particular irony that keeps throwing itself in my face, and generally speaking, the Republican faction, in this hearing I’ve referred to and in general, is the most emphatic about pushing this. In that bunch, you’ll find people shrieking loudest about “out of control government spending”, but watch what happens if anybody points out to the biggest, most egregious, obvious, problem in that realm, hundreds of billions of dollars a year under the heading of “defense and national security”, as we cover the planet with military installations and people, rather than focusing on strictly maintaining a defense of the country. All kinds of jingoistic nonsense bursts forth.

Turn to the subject of petroleum, and the same general crowd will usually chatter about “energy independence”, “our dependence on foreign oil”, and use this as a rationale for a determined effort to suck up every bit of oil we have left in U.S. territory as fast as we can (while, I remind you, completely ignoring the historical data showing the U.S. oil peak around forty years ago, and an understanding of Hubbert’s curve).

There, staring us all in the face, is an unbelievable, just utterly incomprehensible absurdity. Soak this in and ponder. In that view, oil is a matter of “national security”, the chatter regularly refers to “dependence on foreign oil”, and all that leads to the usual conclusion that the solution to this is to use up whatever we have left as aggressively as possible.

I just can’t watch that stuff without thinking “severe mental illness” every time I observe it.

A constant running theme in the broad batch of Republican Party politics is claiming, I must emphasize the word “claiming”, to be all about “freedom and liberty”, even while the reality is more often than not about a desire and efforts to oppress and control other people’s lives and behavior. (And so many people go along with this never seeing the really gross, just blatant, contradictions. This astounds me every day.) Along with that there’s a huge plate of chatter about “free enterprise” and American ingenuity and innovation, even though the actual predominant reality of the Republican Party mainly revolves around a kind of corporate plutocracy that tends to bind or subsume or simply crush anything happening outside their corporate realm.

But the most common attitude in that school of politics invariably claims that oil, or any other resources for that matter, is a situation that can be and will be always solved by “getting government out of the way” making way for “free market solutions, investment, innovation”, and “the free market” will cure all and make all things right. The attitude regarding oil seems to unwaveringly stick to this party line, and avoids any acknowledgement of the reality involved. I’ve said it before, I’m repeating it now. You get one story about our oil situation from politicians, economists, and top management of oil business entities. You get much different stories from retired geologists specializing in petroleum with years of experience in the oil business of exploration and extraction, who now are not bound by an oil business employer about what they say and write.

There is a theme that some people look at thoughtfully and with acute awareness, and are trying to point out to the rest of us. The theme is that, here in the United States in particular, for a long time, that, whatever we want, there is always more, more, more, just waiting for us; if not immediately available, then over some horizon, in some new territory, some “new world”. Most politicians, professional economists, big corporate management, they all seem to operate on a set of premises formed over centuries, especially over the course of the industrial revolution and the 19th and early to middle 20th centuries, that there’s always more, just waiting for us to gather it up and turn it into whatever we want or do whatever we want, if only the right conditions are present and suitable effort and money are thrown at it. The concept of finite limits doesn’t fit.

The deposits of petroleum beneath the Earth the humna race has been using up for the past century and a half or so were a one time windfall that have been found to be very useful. The metaphor I often think of is the idea a lucky winner of some big lottery jackpot who has proceeded to just go bananas on every luxury and indulgence and whim and convenience they can think of, and now suddenly (even though it was obvious that things were heading this way), they’re down to scrounging around for the last bits they have left. The House committee hearing I was watching, the comments I was hearing, was a kind of manifestation of a faction determined to dig around under every possible couch cushion and look in every jar of loose change to try to keep up the yacht club membership.

There are just simply too many people assuming many things and considering things that are, in the longer span bigger picture of the world, passing transient spikes on a timeline, and regarding these conditions as a permanent state.

 

LINKS

“ANWR: Producing American Energy and Creating American Jobs” – [ http://naturalresources.house.gov/Issues/Issue/?IssueID=44655 ] {This is the current presentation on the web of what appears to be the Republican cheerleading for opening ANWR to oil businesses.}

“Analysis of Crude Oil Production in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge” [May 2008] Energy Information Administration Office of Integrated Analysis and Forecasting [ http://www.eia.gov/oiaf/servicerpt/anwr/pdf/sroiaf(2008)03.pdf ]

“Oil on Ice” documentary [ http://www.oilonice.org/ ]

“CRUDE OIL Uncertainty about Future Oil Supply Makes It Important to Develop a Strategy for Addressing a Peak and Decline in Oil Production” United States Government Accountability Office [http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d07283.pdf ]

“PEAKING OF WORLD OIL PRODUCTION: IMPACTS, MITIGATION, & RISK MANAGEMENT” (AKA “the Hirsch report) [http://www.netl.doe.gov/publications/others/pdf/Oil_Peaking_NETL.pdf]

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